MANATI, Puerto Rico — The nine men came from across the island, joined by a mission to retire one of the oldest planes in the U.S. National Guard.
Together, they had nearly 170 years of service, including recent missions evacuating U.S. citizens left stranded in the Caribbean by major storms and ferrying food, water and generators to their own people after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last year.
They were the Buccaneers, members of the 198th Fighter Squadron, husbands and fathers who were supposed to return just days after what was expected to be a brief mission from Georgia to Arizona. Now, a U.S. territory struggling to recover from a Category 4 hurricane amid an economic crisis finds itself mourning nine Puerto Ricans lost in the biggest disaster of its kind for the island's National Guard. Families and officials are demanding answers.
"An investigation is more than needed," said Puerto Rico Rep. Joel Franqui Atiles, who submitted a bill on Thursday to demand a report on the condition of all equipment used by Puerto Rico's National Guard and how much it receives in federal funds.
Meanwhile, mourners gathered at the homes of wives, parents and grandparents who lost someone in Wednesday's crash in Savannah, Georgia.
The pilot, Maj. Jose Rafael Roman, leaves behind two sons, a stepson and a wife who is five months pregnant with a girl.
"The town is in mourning," Jose Sanchez, mayor of the north coastal town of Manati, told The Associated Press.
Carlos Narvaez, a newspaper sports editor and Roman's close childhood friend, told the AP that Roman was nicknamed "Rotor" because he loved all things with a motor that go fast. He said 43-year-old Roman was president of his high school class and worked at a company that manufactured aluminum windows before joining the National Guard after graduating as a pilot in Memphis, Tennessee.
In December, Narvaez said Roman raised concerns about the age of the planes they were using.
"He told me, 'We're using the oldest planes of the entire United States of America,'" Narvaez recalled.
Jeremy Roman, the pilot's youngest son, said in a statement that he was extremely proud of his father: "You're a hero, and you're my hero, and I want everyone to know I'm very proud of you."
Over in the southern coastal town of Salinas, officials were mourning for Senior Airman Roberto Espada, who had worked there as an accountant and auditor for a decade. He had the least years of service — just three — but had discovered his calling.
"He told me that he finally found what he was passionate about," his best friend and fellow guardsman, Francisco Ortiz, told the AP.
He recalled that Espada quickly memorized all the ranks and was always eager to learn.
"He was one of those few human beings that are worth knowing," he said. "He was extremely humble, always happy."
Also killed were Senior Master Sgt. Jan Paravisini, a mechanic; Master Sgt. Jean Audriffred; Master Sgt. Mario Brana, a flight engineer; Master Sgt. Victor Colon; and Master Sgt. Eric Circuns, a loadmaster. Meanwhile, the military identified the plane's navigator as Maj. Carlos Perez Serra and its co-pilot as 1st Lt. David Albandoz.
Karla Rivera, a spokeswoman for the northern city of Canovanas, said Paravisini's family declined a visit from Puerto Rico's governor as well as from the mayor, who's their neighbor.
"They haven't left their house," she said.
Meanwhile, military investigators began the arduous task of answering why the huge plane being flown into retirement by an experienced crew plunged onto a Georgia highway moments after taking off. It narrowly missed motorists and buildings as fiery wreckage exploded over a wide area. Only the tail section was intact, sitting improbably in the middle of Georgia Highway 21.
A military officer told reporters that investigators were on the scene, but he offered no preliminary findings.
"It's extremely important for us to understand what has happened," said Col. Pete Boone, vice commander of the 165th Airlift Wing of the Georgia Air National Guard. He said investigators would use "every resource at our disposal to properly identify a cause."
The crash leaves Puerto Rico's National Guard with five large cargo planes, but two of them need maintenance and aren't being used, Rivera said.
Though Rivera had initially said the aircraft was more than 60 years old, Puerto Rico Air National Guard spokesman Maj. Paul Dahlen said that was a mistake, and the plane was manufactured in the 1970s. That would make it about 40 years old.
The aging plane had rescued and resupplied American citizens after last year's hurricanes as part of the U.S. territory's fleet, which often struggles to remain mission-ready amid long waits for spare parts, said Adjutant Gen. Isabelo Rivera, commander of the Puerto Rico National Guard.
The plane crashed after taking off from Savannah/ Hilton Head International Airport en route to Arizona, where it would have been retired from service. Boone said it had received "routine maintenance" while in Savannah. He did not know if the crew made a distress call to air traffic controllers after takeoff.